WASHINGTON — Forget the Republican Party’s need to rebrand itself. Forget party elders' promises that they will start reaching out to minorities. And forget the supposed soul-searching that is meant to sweep over the GOP as it undergoes a serious reexamination of its future.
Right now, Republicans are having trouble even getting out of their own way.
Conservative groups are splintering. The Romney campaign has dissolved into backbiting and billing disputes. A “plan B” to avert the fiscal cliff proved to be a colossal embarrassment. A teetotaling Idaho senator has been charged with drunk driving. But the most striking symptom of the GOP’s horrible moment is the party’s inability to get done what virtually everyone here knows is in its political best interest: A hasty surrender.
It’s difficult to find a Republican operative who is willing to say on the record that going over the fiscal cliff next Tuesday is a good idea. Provoking a crisis is bad politics: Republicans are resigned to taking the blame. And it’s bad for their policy agenda: They will likely be cornered into a broader tax hike than the best deal they could get from President Barack Obama today, and with none of the spending cuts that might now be on the table.
And yet, the dominant emotion among most Republicans here is one of sheer resignation.
“It’s a shit show,” one prominent Republican told BuzzFeed of the GOP’s messaging position. “Tax rates are going to go up on everyone, and we’re going to get the blame.”
President Obama has already snatched back the outlines of a deal he offered House Speaker John Boehner last year, pulling back from considering certain entitlement cuts. If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire for all taxpayers, Republicans believe Obama will move the goal posts again, and refuse to negotiate on raising the eligibility age for Medicare or chained-CPI — an accounting tool many economists believe is more accurate than current measures of inflation, and would have the effect of slowing the growth of Social Security benefits.
“There’s a group of people waiting for the soul searching to begin until after we take this really shitty vote, whatever it is,” said a top Capitol Hill Republican.
The Republican woes have many roots, but here on Capitol Hill, one of the problems is particularly clear. Without a Republican president — or even a presidential nominee — leadership has fallen to two men who are in no position to actually lead a national party anywhere: Boehner and, to a lesser degree, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell is a tactical master and one of the best politicians in the country. But he is not equipped to be the party's national face, nor is he the sort to quickly impose a firm grip on the floundering party in order to lead it out of the wilderness.
McConnell has been extremely successful in working with the disparate parts of his conference to maintain discipline — after all, he’s seen Tea Party conservative Jim DeMint and staunch moderate Susan Collins vote in lockstep on dozens of motions and measures over the last four years.
But while his quiet demeanor is well suited for the Senate and Kentucky politics, he does not have the sort of personality that can rally his colleagues.
As for Boehner, since the election he’s seen his standing within the party and conservative circles crumble. Conservative news outlets are openly discussing ousting him, accusing him of ideological crimes against his party and in some cases openly mocking him and questioning his honesty.
At the same time, his conference — which has always been a rambunctious bunch on a good day — has made it clear they are not afraid of him and are unwilling to follow him into battle.
Boehner’s leadership style — which shuns the use of earmarks and places a premium on his and his lieutenants’ ability to use their personal relationships to guide their conference — has long been an open question within Washington. But while there’s zero chance of Boehner being ousted as Speaker, even loyal Republicans acknowledge he’s weak.
“The leadership is weak, but I say that with a caveat. Nobody is going to overthrow Boehner,” a veteran operative said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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